This guest blog by former Mayor Doug Oitzinger is a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series on the Menominee River in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Forty-three years ago, I moved to the Marinette-Menominee area to take a job with Marinette Marine, a shipbuilder located on the Menominee River in the City of Marinette, Wisconsin. All this time I have lived either on the river or close to the bay of Green Bay into which the river empties. I can see the bay from my living room window right now. For 22 years, I worked at the shipyard on that river every day. I’ve also owned several small businesses in Marinette and was the Mayor of the City of Marinette for five years. While mayor, I served on the Wisconsin Coastal Management Council.
It is with this perspective that I see the proposed Back Forty Mine in Menominee County, Michigan, as threatening to undo forty years of river restoration in Marinette. For most of my residence in the area, the Menominee River was polluted with arsenic salts from a manufacturer that was located next to the shipyard. This pollution has been cleaned up only in the last few years with great expense to the company and to federal taxpayers. Finally, after all these years, our river is off the list of concerned waterways and fish can be eaten without a myriad of warnings about their consumption.
But that pollution existed in only a half-mile stretch of waterway in the city to the mouth of the river. The Back Forty Mine endangers more than thirty miles of river flowage until it reaches its mouth and empties into the bay. The mine’s contaminants are far more dangerous than the arsenic salts ever were! Building an open pit sulfide mine with its waste water holding pond fifty to one hundred feet from the river is insane. This isn’t a question of “if”; it’s a question of “when”— as in, “when something bad happens, what can we do”? And the answer is “nothing”.
There is only one way to fix a slurry of toxic waste from spilling into the Menominee River, and that is to never create the waste in the first place. To protect the river, protect our lifestyle, protect our property values, protect our health and our children’s health, to protect a growing tourist economy based on fishing and boating, and to protect our future, we must stop this mine from being built.
The Back Forty Mine owners tout the potential jobs and economic boost to the area. Their website explains that the maximum project length, which includes the reclamation period, is sixteen years. Any significant employment would accrue in a much shorter time period than the sixteen years. Those jobs will disappear in less than a decade. But toxic waste pollution isn’t like temporary employment; it can last for longer than anyone reading this will ever live.
Someone will get enormously rich from this mine if it is built, and it won’t be those of us living here. However, it will be us asking, “what do we do now,” when those toxins come racing down the river into our city’s front yard. Is less than sixteen years of employment for a few people worth risking thirty miles of the Menominee River perhaps forever? We are literally risking the well-being and economic security of forty thousand people in Marinette and Menominee Counties so a handful of people can be rich. This isn’t right. This isn’t smart, and this shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
Doug is the former Mayor of Marinette, Wisconsin, and a long-time resident of the area.